How to Safely Wash a Sweater

laundry tips for keeping your prized sweater from pilling, shrinking, or fading during machine washing.

1. start by reading your sweater's care label.

Whether your sweater is cashmere, acrylic, cotton or silk, it can not only survive the machine wash laundering process -  it can even come out looking good.

With one exception, that is. If clothing tags say "Dry Clean Only" - Stop. The word "only" tells you it isn't safe to wash. Period.

However, if you read "Dry Clean" (without the "Only") on the clothing tags, you can usually machine wash safely.

Yes, you really do have to be more careful with these cotton and wool treasures - if you want them to look good and last, that is.

They can shrink; they can stretch; they can even (heaven forbid but they do) pill.

And the softer the fabric material, the more carefully we need to care for it to prevent these unwanted changes in appearance.

2. Wash sweater by fiber type.

There's no single machine washing routine that's going to work for all sweaters. Not because they're sweaters in general, mind you - but because of the specific fabrics, which can range from wool to cashmere to silk.

Each of these fabrics requires its own custom cleaning solution, and often a different machine wash water temperature or method (such as hand-washing for cashmere), and drying routine to keep its surface sheen and color intact.

Some of these fabrics can be machine dried on low-heat; others - like wool - will shrink to fit your little nephew if you pop it in the machine. Instead, they need to be laid flat to dry.

Here's how to launder specific fabrics:

  • Acrylic: Acrylics are man-made fibers that can stretch when subjected to heat. Machine wash as directed on clothing tags - usually in warm water. Then either lay flat to dry or tumble dry in the dryer on low heat.
  • Angora: Angora is a blend of rabbit hair and synthetic fibers. It's very prone to shrinking so this is one fabric you may want to consider leaving to the pros. If the care label says it can't be washed, hand-wash it instead, and then lay it flat to dry.
  • Cashmere: Cashmere is made of goat hair blended with wool or synthetic fibers. Follow the clothing tags instructions to the letter here - they're usually pretty accurate. Generally, cashmere can be washed on the delicate cycle in cold water. Roll it in a towel to squeeze out excess water. Gently reshape, and lay flat to dry away from sunlight or direct heat.
  • Chenille: If you want chenille to stay soft, don't put it in the washing machine - even if the label says it's OK. The rubbing caused by the machine's agitation damages and breaks the fragile fibers, causing them to and snag, pill, or feel rough. Instead, wash chenille inside out by hand. Lay flat to dry.
  • Cotton: Unlike sturdier garments, these cotton pieces are best washed in cold water, not warm. Use your machine's gentle cycle to prevent any fiber breakage. Lay flat to dry.
  • Silk: As long as it isn't beaded or have any other hand-stitched decor, most silk can be safely washed in the machine on its delicate cycle in cold water. Lay flat to dry. It may needed ironing afterward, however.
  • Wool: Some wool can be washed; others can't take the heat (or even the cold water). Start by checking the label. If it is OK to put in the washing machine, use the gentlest cycle on your machine, choosing cold for the wash-water temperature. Don't twist to remove excess water; wrap in a towel instead. Lay flat to dry.

3. Washing and Drying Tips.

Always turn sweaters inside out to reduce pilling. (Those little fuzzy balls or bits of fluff that show up on the surface are called "pills", and are the result of fiber agitation in the washing machine, which can cause them to break).

To prevent this, wash in an extra-large mesh bag. If hand-washing, remove excess water by rolling in a towel.

Don't wring - you'll do the same damage to the delicate fibers as a washing machine.

  • Drying: Dry on low heat and remove the garment when it's almost - but not fully - dry. Finish drying by lying it flat on a clothing rack or horizontal surface covered by a towel.
  • Pilling: If pilling does happen, the best way to remove it is to gently shave the surface with a plastic safety razor. But very, very gently.
  • Storage: Don't put away a sweater dirty. This makes it more attractive to pests. Also, some stains may set. Once clean, fold to store it. Don't hang it, as this may cause it to stretch out of shape.
  • To make sweaters last longer, air them out at least 24 hours after wearing. Fold and store out of direct light.

For more information on clothing tags and care labels, read the Guide to Garment Care Symbols from The American Cleaning Institute.

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About the Author

Tara Aronson is a native Californian. Having grown up in San Diego, she studied journalism and Spanish to pursue a career in newspaper writing. Tara, whose three children - Chris, Lyndsay, and Payne - are the light of her life, now lives and writes in Los Angeles. She also regularly appears on television news programs throughout the U.S.